September 14, 2012

Rabid Reads: "The Illustrated Man" by Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated Man
by Ray Bradbury
first published in 1951
186 pages

It was sad news to hear of Ray Bradbury's death a few months back, though not surprising. The man had what had to be the epitome of a prolific writing career. It was actually only a couple of days after I began reading this collection for the first time that I saw the headline of his passing plastered across the internet. So it was with some measure of dolefulness that I read one of Mr. Bradbury's most heralded collections.

The Illustrated Man features eighteen short stories, all previously published between the years of 1948 and 1951 (the year this book was originally released). The stories themselves are disparate in subject matter, all neatly fitting under the broad umbrella of speculative fiction, and introduced to the reader through the emergence of a tattooed character that the narrator meets on the side of the road. It's through each of the stranger's livid illustrations that the stories come to life and haunt the man who sees them. The Illustrated Man only actually appears at the beginning and the end of the book, the rest of the pages belong entirely to the stories.

Right off the bat, I was treated to one of my all-time favorite short stories, "The Veldt," about a husband and wife fretting over the growing obsession and sinister nature their children share with a virtual reality room in their home, and the African landscape that the room ceaselessly displays.

The thing about Bradbury is that sometimes he is subtle with his stories, hiding whatever intended meaning there might be behind a thick veneer of trippy scifi elements. Other times he is as subtle as a cinder block with political or cultural messages, like in "The Highway."

A few of my favorites from this collection include "The Fox and the Forest," not simply for my namesake, but because the idea of escaping a dystopian war-torn world of the future to hide out in the mundanity of the past is accomplished with far more entertaining results than that ill-fated TV show, Terra Nova, could have ever dreamed. "Zero Hour" was another gem with neighborhood children playing a game called Invasion that amuses the parents until they realize the game is happening everywhere with eery similarities. The growing up aspect of the story was played up incredibly well, too. And "The Rocket Man" had one of those tragic stories of family life at odds with occupation and obsession. Loved it.

Not all of the stories were a hit with me, but that's hardly the point when it comes reading Bradbury's work. There is a wellspring of wonder in this book's pages and is easily among my favorite collections now. The man had this grandiose way about storytelling that made even the most preposterous of situations feel genuine. I mean, if you can read a story about astronauts hiking across the rain-soaked Venus landscape without laughing at the absurdity of it all, the guy who wrote it has got to be good.

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